Is Self-Publishing Literary Fiction Possible?

Or is genre fiction the only success story?

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Photo by Karim Ghantous on Unsplash

For some time now, I’ve been interested in the field of self-publishing and whether or not it could provide a worthwhile pathway for my own literary fiction writing.

Until recently — being frank — I would never have considered the self-publishing route, simply because I have maintained an old-fashioned (and probably snobbish) attitude to publishing, one that valued the affirmation of the traditional publishing model and its products.

That’s how I interact with fiction: all the novels I’ve ever read are hold-in-your-hand paperbacks or hardcovers. I get my book recommendations from newspapers and review journals. One of my favourite pastimes is to idle among the shelves of a secondhand bookshop. And I’ve never used an e-reader in my life.

In recent years, however, I’ve begun to think differently about self-publishing. I’ll explain why in a minute. The trouble is that I have one persistent doubt: can literary fiction can succeed in the self-publishing arena or is genre fiction the only game in town?

The main reason I’ve begun to think differently about self-publishing is that I now see the divide between traditional and “indie” as much less clear-cut than I had supposed. Ultimately, I can see that everyone is pursuing the same goal, that of finding an audience and, if possible, a readership that remains loyal. And ever since the digital revolution, the means at the disposal of publishers and self-publishers are largely the same.

For instance, I have no doubt that a publishing house would be far more disposed towards a writer who has a healthy social media following, who is “presentable” in public, who is willing to talk about their work, to blog, vlog and tweet about themselves, and who is open to (and has some acumen in) the various other avenues of marketing that might help shift book copies. I also have no doubt that a self-published author would do well to have the same set of competences.

I also realised that my old-fashioned view of publishing was far from consistent with my own habits as a reader (and a writer). I may not had ever read a novel on a Kindle, but I’ve read plenty of blog posts online. And I’ve written my fair share of blog posts too. I sometimes buy a newspaper, but most of the time I get my news from the web. For factual information on science, history, travel, writing, art and so on, I look at the books on my bookshelf at home, but just a readily I turn to the internet.

In short, I’ve come to see my bias towards traditional publishing as illogical. And whilst I still see the obvious advantages of having industry experts engage with me as a writer, I remain perennially apprehensive about that collaboration turning into something more overbearing.

To put it another way, I remain persistently curious about going it alone.

Staying in control of my own career is hugely important for me. Moreover, it feels perfectly natural for me to work (more or less) on my own.

My other creative pursuit is painting, and as an artist I have no hesitation in representing myself, in organising my own exhibitions or submitting works to group shows without need of an agent. Indeed, I see one of the tenets of being an artist — in my romantic idealism — the independence it grants. Everything I paint begins with an impulse that is personal, private and entirely idiosyncratic.

The same could be said of writing, which for me is at its most rewarding when the outside world feels a million-miles away and the words are flowing from my fingertips like warmth from a fire. In this way, venturing onward under my own steam feels very normal and entirely legitimate.

There are practical considerations too. To give one simple example: if I write an article for my own website, then I have full access to the visitor data for that post. I can see how many reads it has had, how people found it, how long they stayed, etc.

I’d never quite appreciated the privilege of having this data until I began writing for other websites and publications. It is an eerie silence that descends when, so used to checking on your own statistics, you find you have no way of knowing how well or poorly a piece performed.

Given my propensity to work alone, I’ve been especially drawn to writers who proclaim an impatience with the traditional publishing model and who have made self-publishing their choice because they want (and are happy with) control over their work.

For example, the hugely successful self-published author Hugh Howey argues that self-publishing is in fact far more commonplace (and accepted) than we tend to view it. In one blog post he wrote:

The future of literary fiction will be owned and operated by digital natives — writers who grow up posting on blogs, debating on forums, posting on Facebook and Twitter, and all the myriad forms of self-publishing that we don’t seem to label “self-publishing.”

In another podcast, he expressed his dismay at the way different independent creatives are treated. He pointed out that we celebrate independent filmmakers, independent artists and independent photographers, but when it comes to independent authors we tend to have a more dismissive attitude.

I like this sort of talk. I like its disruptive and belligerent attitude. It tells me that independence is a virtue, and that I shouldn’t feel troubled by a choice to self-publish.

But when I dig a little deeper I find that a barrier consistently presents itself.

For what hasn’t escaped my notice is that Hugh Howey writes science fiction. And Amanda Hocking writes paranormal romance. And Michael J. Sullivan writes epic fantasy. And Mark Dawson writes thrillers.

Self-publishing success stories are not hard to find. But almost without fail, those writers who seem to find an ample and loyal readership are working in a genre. Whether it be romance, sci-fi, paranormal, history or suspense, the prevalence of genre fiction in the pantheon of self-publishing is impossible to ignore. I’ve nothing against these categories of fiction, but they don’t interest me as a writer.

A couple of years ago, the writer Ros Barber wrote a fairly ruthless piece for the Guardian newspaper explaining why self-publishing was certainly not for her.

She argued that self-published writers spend 90% of their time marketing and only 10% writing. She bemoaned the lack of gatekeepers in the self-publishing industry. And she pointed out that most self-published authors don’t make a living even if they take home a greater slice of the pie: “70% of nothing is nothing” as she memorably put it.

None of this had a deterring effect on me, until I reached one section in her piece in which she summarised the particular situation for literary writers:

Traditional publishing is the only way to go for someone who writes literary fiction. With genre fiction, self-publishing can turn you into a successful author (if you can build a platform, if you enjoy marketing and are good at it, if you are lucky). But an author who writes literary fiction is dependent on critical acclaim and literary prizes to build their reputation and following. If genre fiction is chart music, literary fiction is opera: the audience is small, and there are limited ways to reach it. Self-published books are not eligible for major prizes like the Baileys, the Costa and the Man Booker, and getting shortlisted for major prizes is the only way a literary novel will become a bestseller. The chance of a self-published novelist getting their book reviewed in the mainstream press is the same as the chance of my dog not eating a sausage. The chance of an indie author being booked for a major literature festival? Donald Trump apologising to Mexico.

Perhaps Ros Barber is perpetuating the snobbish view of self-publishing that Hugh Howey detests, but she still gets to the nub of the issue for me:

What is the model for successful self-published literary fiction?

Ultimately, I suppose what underpins my hesitation is the lack of role models for writers like me. Countless examples exist in the traditional publishing field, but when it comes to self-publishing, I’ve struggled to find anyone who has made a success in the literary mode.

Or perhaps the problem lies with how I’m looking at it. With sales of literary fiction falling — which might explain why literary authors are reliant on the reputational boost given by the traditional publishing route — perhaps I need to think about categorising my writing to make it easier for readers to find.

As one article that explores the stand-off between literary and genre fictions says: “Literary fiction is an artificial luxury brand but it doesn’t sell. So nobody benefits by fencing it off from more popular writing.”

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Christopher P Jones writes about art and culture. Sign up to learn more about him and his writing.

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Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings”

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